The Witch's Head/Book III/Chapter X
Some years passed before Eva Plowden returned to Kesterwick, and then she was carried thither. Alive she did not return, nor during all these years did she and Ernest ever meet.
They buried her, in obedience to her last wishes, in the churchyard, where lay generation upon generation of her ancient race, and the daisies grew above her head. Twice had they bloomed above her before Sir Ernest Kershaw stood by the spot hallowed with the presence of what once enshrined the spirit of the woman he had loved.
Ernest was now getting well into middle life, and Dorothy's bright hair was slightly lined with grey, when they stood that summer evening by Eva's grave. Many things had happened to the pair since Mr. Cardus's tragic death. They had children born to them—some they had lost, some remained—honest English lads and lasses, with their father's eyes. They had enjoyed great wealth, and spent it royally, giving to all who needed. They had drunk deep of the cup of this world's joys and sorrows. Ernest had gone into Parliament for a couple of years, and made something of a name there. Then, impatient for the active life of other days, he had accepted a high Colonial appointment, for which, notwithstanding his blindness, his wealth and parliamentary reputation eminently fitted him. Now he was just about to leave to fill the governorship of one of the Australian colonies.
Long years had passed, many things had happened; and yet as he stood by that heap of turf, which he could not see, it seemed but yesterday when—and he sighed.
“Not quite cured yet, Ernest?” said Dorothy, interrogatively.
“Yes, Dorothy,” he answered, with a little sigh, “I think I am cured. At any rate,” he went on, as she took his hand to lead him away from the grave, “I have learned to accept the decrees of Providence without murmuring. I have done with dreams and outlived pessimism. Life would, it is true, have been different thing for me if poor Eva had not deserted me, for she poisoned its waters at the fount, and so they have always tasted bitter. But happiness is not the end and object of man's existence; and if I could I would not undo the past. Take me to the old flat tombstone, Dolly, near the door.”
She led him to it, and he sat down.
“Ah,” he went on, “how beautiful she was! Was there ever woman like her, I wonder? And now her bones lie there; her beauty is all gone; and there lives of her only the unending issues of what she did. I have only to think, Dolly, and I can see her as I saw her a score of times passing in and out of this church-door. Yes, I can see her, and the people round her, and the clothes she wore, and the smile in her beautiful dark eyes—for her eyes seemed to smile, you remember, Dolly. How I worshipped her, too, with all my heart and soul and strength, as though she were an angel! And that was my mistake, Dolly. She was only a woman—a very weak woman.”
“You said just now that you were cured, Ernest; one would hardly think it to hear you talk,” put in Dorothy, smiling.
“Yes, Doll, I am cured; you have cured me, my dear wife, for you have crept into my life, and taken possession of it, so that there is little room for anybody else; and now, Dorothy, I love you with all my heart.”
She pressed his hand and smiled again, for she knew that she had triumphed, and that he did love her, truly love her, and that this passion for Eva was a poor thing compared to what it had been years before—more indeed of a tender regret, not unmingled with a starry hope, than a passion at all. Dorothy was a clever little person, and understood something of Ernest and the human heart in general. She had thought long ago that she would win Ernest altogether to her in the end. By what tenderness, by what devotion and nobility of character she had accomplished this, those who know her can well imagine, but in the end she did accomplish it, as she deserved to do. The contrast between the conduct of the two women who had mainly influenced his life was too marked for Ernest, a man of a just and reasonable mind, to altogether ignore; and when once he came to comparisons the natural results followed. Yet, though he learned to love Dorothy so dearly, it cannot be said that he forgot Eva; because there are things that some men can never forget, since they are a part of their inner life, and of these, unfortunately, first love is one.
“Ernest,” went on Dorothy, “you remember what you told me when you asked me to marry you in Titheburgh Abbey, about your belief that your affection for Eva would outlast this world. Do you still believe that?”
“Yes, Doll, to some extent.”
His wife sat and thought for a minute.
“Ernest,” she said presently.
“I have managed to hold my own against Eva in this world, when she had all the chances and all the beauty on her side, and what I have to say about your theories now is, that when we get to the next, and are all beautiful, it will be very strange if I don't manage to hold my own there. She had her chance, and she threw it away: now I have got mine, and I don't mean to throw it away, either in this world or the next.”
Ernest laughed a little. “I must say, my dear, it would be a very poor heaven if you were not there.”
“I should think so, indeed. 'Those whom God hath joined let not man put asunder'—nor woman either. But what is the good of our stopping here to talk such stuff about things of which we really understand nothing? Come, Ernest, Jeremy and the boys will be waiting for us.”
So hand in hand they went on homeward through the quiet twilight.